Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Special Election

The major local news story, which has statewide implications, is today's special election for New York's 37th Senate District, my district. I just got back from voting for Democrat Shelley Mayers, currently an assemblywoman from my beloved City of Y______. I used to be reticent about which candidate I voted for in any election, but those days are long past. I just can't vote for anyone running under the aegis of a party which has gone full Gohmert (never go full Gohmert).

The election is a crucial one, because it will determine whether or not the Democrats can take the NY State Senate. Because of this, over three million dollars have been poured into the district, mainly for attack ads against Mayers. Predictably, these ads have been hamfisted, trying to portray Mayers as a sinister 'DeBlasian' socialist. I like New York City mayor Bill De Blasio, so I find these ads hilarious.

Yesterday, WNYC's Brian Lehrer hosted both of the candidates on his radio show, and Killian ducked the issue of Trump and the national GOP's positions, which for me are the elephant in the room... especially since the GOP tax plan specifically targets the wealthy Blue State homeowners who inhabit the wealthier precincts of the 37th district. As I said before, there's no way in hell I will vote for any Republican candidate, and I suspect that a large cohort of formerly Republican voters in the region will act similarly.

Monday, April 23, 2018

The Fibbin' Nazi Sequence

Poking around the t00bz, I found this hilarious picture of Donald Trump's head conforming to a Fibonacci spiral:




It's similar to a golden spiral, which is appropriate for a gilded turd like The Donald. It's also appropriate that a fibbin' Nazi would have a Fibonacci head.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

2018 Earth Day Musings

Shortly after dawn on Earth Day, I walked the site, opening up the parking lot gates for the public. It was 36F (2.2C) at 6:30 in the morning, in late April. Paradoxically, the cold Spring weather can be chalked up to warming in the Arctic, which disrupts the jet stream.

Having written this blog since December 2009, I have a pretty good indication of the conditions in my environment for the past eight and a quarter years. I can look back and figure out when the animals were becoming active, when the plants were starting to bud. This cold Spring, I've heard the spring peepers singing their love songs, I've seen the Canada geese building nests, heard the red-winged blackbirds trill to announce their presence. The nettles are poking up through the frost-bedizened ground. It doesn't FEEL right, though- wearing a watch cap and a fleece under my sweatshirt at this time of year is foreign to me. We humans have broken our planet (but not THE planet- there are plenty of organisms which will thrive in the fucked up world we're producing).

The current maladministration, with an Environmental Protection Agency being run into the ground by a fossil fuel flack, a rollback of fuel efficiency and carbon emission standards (though higher gas prices will curtail some driving), and general hostility to regulation, is an environmental disaster. The Resistance to the GOP, the drive to flip Congress to the Democratic Party, takes on additional urgency. Electing GWB in 2000 was a disaster- a regime hostile to environmental concerns at exactly the wrong time, and electing Donald Trump represented a doubling down of this huge environmental failing.

I'm an outdoorsy fellow- much of my work takes place outdoors, as does much of my recreation. I'm a biology nerd as well. I value our fellow denizens of Earth, but it goes beyond that- environmentalism is about human health, human happiness, human quality of life. The environment we are altering is our environment, destroying it would be our collective suicide... and that is too high a price to pay for maximizing next quarter's profits, or 'owning the libs', or trying to make up for one's deficiencies as a tough guy.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

My Entire Job Experience, Encapsulated in One Day

I often joke that my job is cushy, except when it's not. It ranges from 'wow, I'm having fun' to 'oh, shit', with a baseline of decent job satisfaction. Yesterday, ran the gamut... We are having our family friendly Spring fundraiser this weekend- it's the kickoff of our open season, the first event which has the seasonal staff back in force, doing their thing. I arrived at work, and there was a fair degree of prep work going on. I helped one of the IT guys move some equipment- he's a good friend and has done me some favors in the past when I've had computer issues, plus I like to think that I am, in the grand scheme of things, one of the people who contributes to the success of others rather than undermining them. I also had to open up the facility for an employee of another not-for-profit which is helping us with our fundraiser so he could drop off some material that we would be borrowing for the event. Again, I like it when everybody benefits, and both of our organizations are healthier for the collaboration.

After locking things up, I returned to the main parking lot, and the building in which my usual office is located. I noticed three individuals standing in a picnic area next to the parking lot, and was surprised when they greeted me by name at a distance of fifty feet or so. I had met these friendly folks when they attended our big Fall fundraiser, and they remembered me. They had an errand in the locality, and were planning their return to New Jersey when they decided to stop by after grabbing dinner in the locality. I spent a half-hour chatting with them about the upcoming event season, local scuttlebutt, and even about affordable places in the Lower Hudson region (one of them is totally enamored of the area and would like to move here). After a lovely discussion, I suggested that they check out my neck of the woods, the Yonkers/Bronx border region- go to a couple of bars, see if they could find out anything about available apartments. All told, it was a fun time, and I was tickled pink that they would stop over to visit me. It doesn't happen very often, but a few times a year, somebody that I have met through our events will drop by for a friendly chat.

About two hours after the trio departed, I received a phone call from the company which monitors our alarm systems. A motion detector in the maintenance garage of another site had been activated. The standard procedure is to instruct the monitoring staff to hold off on dispatching the police so we can perform an in-house check of the premises and make the determination ourselves. Generally speaking, one motion detector going off is a mouse- if multiple motion detectors go off, it's a marauder. One one occasion, we had a repeating activation of one particular motion detector, and I ascertained that convection currents from a radiator were moving a drape, and setting the detector off- shutting the radiator valve stopped that. At any rate, alarm activations are rare, but they do happen.

I won't say that burglar alarm activations are routine- even though I have never personally encountered someone breaking-and-entering, the very act of going to the site of an alarm, even one set off by a mouse, isn't a picnic. Last night, I drove to the site and there was a car parked in the entrance driveway, with its headlights on. This is not usual, and my immediate thought was: "Sketchy car, suggestive timing." I drove to the exit gate driveway, killed the headlights of the car, and quietly opened the exit gate. I drove onto the site and locked the gate behind me, not wanting any surprises. I exited the car, and ducked behind a tree in order to call the local police non-emergency number. I explained who I was, and where I was, and gave a quick précis of the situation- I had received a motion detector alarm, and arrived onsite to investigate, whereupon I saw a car which didn't belong in that spot at that time. I gave a description of myself and what I was wearing, told the desk sergeant that my car was locked onsite, and that I would be checking out the alarm panel and the buildings. I'm not the sort of person who gets scared easily, and I generally trust my instincts, my knowledge of my home turf, and a certain physical competence when it comes to conflicts- I figured the police could check out the car while I checked out the site. That being said, I went slinking from shadow to shadow as I made my way to the maintenance garage, which happens to be the site of the main alarm panel. The doors were securely locked, there was no sign of intruders- everything was in good order.

When the desk sergeant called me back on the company phone, he informed me that the driver of the car had broken down and was awaiting a tow truck. I told him that everything on site was in good order, and that the whole incident appeared to be a bizarre coincidence. I waited onsite until a flatbed tow truck arrived and the car was removed from our driveway. My initial 'OH, SHIT!' moment turned out to be no big deal.

It was one of those nights which served as a perfect illustration of the job- an absolute joy one moment, a task fraught with tension another moment. I know which of these moments I prefer, but I like to think that I handled both with equal aplomb.

Friday, April 20, 2018

The Shock that Still Resonates

It's been nineteen years since the Columbine school mass-shooting, and the pain is still palpable. For nineteen years, there's been a lot of talk, but no action, regarding mass-shootings, and one got the sense that people were feeling helpless in the face of pervasive gun culture and a powerful gun lobby. The pain, the shock, the loss still reverberate, but kids who weren't even born when the massacre took place have decided to push back with a series of school walkouts throughout the country. This walkout has received support from several VIPs.

The student movement against gun violence keeps gaining momentum, these teenagers who have never lived in a world in which mass school shootings were unknown are displaying a wisdom and a courage that previous cohorts of teenagers weren't able to muster on such a scale. Being organized, being righteous, being savvy, these kids are going to accomplish something transformative- I predict some amazing things from this generation and I am profoundly grateful.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Death of a Real News Titan

On Sunday, I wrote a piece about the death of a fake news man, so it's appropriate to write about the death of a real newsman- we lost NPR's Carl Kasell last Tuesday. I have long been a fan of Carl Kasell, the consummate news anchor... the serious, unflappable reporter with the deep, well-modulated voice and the perfect sense of gravitas. The man was also extremely funny, as his tenure on Wait Wait, Don't Tell Me proved- his chemistry with Peter Sagal was genuine.

Carl Kasell was one of the greats- he was level-headed and trustworthy, he never sensationalized the news, he was a steadying force in times of tragedy, who just happened to have comedic flair when it was appropriate. Here's a great interview with Mr Kasell:





It's been a while since I've spent a Saturday morning with Mr Kasell, but he was always good company.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Dowager Dies

The death of Barbara Bush at the age of 92 has dominated the airwaves today, and the hagiography has been nauseating. The coverage of her death is glossing over just how horrible Babs was. Her comment on Good Morning America two days before her son's disastrous attack on the innocent people of Iraq is about as repulsive as a statement can be:


But why should we hear about body bags and deaths, and how many, what day it's gonna happen, and how many this or that or what do you suppose? Or, I mean, it's not relevant. So, why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that, and watch him suffer?


Yeah, why concern yourself with contemplating the hell that your idiot son is going to rain on some poor brown people half a world away? Hell, those benighted barbarians don't count as people, none of them has ever been Junior League material!


Almost as repulsive as that quote was her statement on Marketplace regarding the post Katrina evacuees hunkered down in the Houston Astrodome:


What I'm hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them.


This statement was completely dehumanizing, characterizing people who had lost loved ones, who had lost family homes which represented their sole intergenerational wealth, who had been forced to flee from their vibrant city, their incredibly rich culture, as a bunch of lucky duckies. I suspect that Babs, in an unguarded moment, would have told anyone near enough to hear that black people don't feel pain like white people do.

I know that the cliche is to not speak ill of the dead, but this is a copout- awful people shouldn't be given a pass just because they croak. Barbara Bush wasn't the saintly matron being portrayed in the media, and being one of those liberals (cursed to remember things), I won't give her a pass. I'm just glad that she stuck around long enough to watch her favorite son get his ass whipped by a vulgar boob, and the political party that she was affiliated with degenerate from a patrician enterprise to a den of cretins and thugs. Of course, being a Bush, she wouldn't have been disturbed by the Nazis in the Republican Party.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Oh, the Lewd Hannity?


Perhaps the greatest source of schadenfreude is the revelation that a moral scold is guilty of behavior that doesn’t jibe with the code of conduct he claims to espouse. That being said, it was a real hoot to learn that Fox’s Sean Hannity is a client of Trump’s incompetent ‘fixer’, Michael Cohen:

https://crooksandliars.com/2018/04/breaking-cohens-third-client-sean-hannity

Given Cohen’s portfolio as a conduit for hush money payments to porn stars, it would be irresponsible not to speculate why Hannity would need to avail himself of his services. The funniest take on it that I have read was the suggestion that Seannie had a tryst with Milo Yabbadabbadopolous.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Fake News Juggernaut Dies

Fittingly, purveyor of paranormal and paranoiac misinformation Art Bell died on Friday the 13th. Bell was the originator of the syndicated Coast-to-Coast AM radio show, which began in 1992 as yet another right-leaning AM radio talk show, but quickly moved into paranormal subjects, such as Bigfoot, UFOs, psychic ability, and other exemplars of WOO! Until recently, I thought that Bell pioneered the late night weird radio format, but it turns out that he largely took the schtick of John Nebel, a late-night radio host who broadcast tales from crazy people from the 1950s to the 1970s. Bell took the Nebel model and ran with it, far.

As someone who has long worked an unconventional schedule, I have to confess that I have on occasion hate-listened to 'late night Sasquatch radio'- I am a fan of weird pulp fiction, and Bell's guests were spinning yarns that they, unfortunately, tried to pass off as true. Bell played straight man to the various lunatics that he invited to the public airwaves- he maintained a neutral pose: certainly not skeptical, but not particularly credulous. While he took calls from random weirdos with bizarre narratives, many of his guests were well-known weirdos such as UFO encounter auteur Whitley Streiber, reactionary religious crank Malachi Martin, ancient aliens loon Erich von Däniken, and clairvoyant grifter/doomsayer Ed Dames. UFOs, demonic possession, remote viewing, cryptids, hybrids, bottomless pits, solar flare 'killshots', and killer Planet Xes- all sorts of bizarre topics were aired by Bell. Basically, anybody who cheated on their 'psionics roll' in the role-playing game we call life was a prime candidate for guest spot on 'Coast'.

A search of YouTube will uncover a plethora of full 'Coast to Coast AM' episodes, but I wouldn't torture my readers with three hour psychological onslaughts (yeah, do you really want to listen to three hours of a fake psychic trying to spy on Satan with clairvoyance?). There are a couple of shorter clips of Bell doing his thing, such as this clip of him with von Däniken:





Here's another clip of Bell receiving a call from some guy claiming to have worked at Area 51:





If you have a strong stomach for this sort of material, there's a shitton of it out there. Personally, I believe that Art Bell had a pernicious effect on our society, paving the way for such cranks and hucksters as Alex Jones and newcomer Liz Crokin. The garbage 'Ancient Aliens' content on formerly respectable cable TV channels can be laid at his feet to a large extent. He made his living peddling parsnormal pablum and paranoia, preying on the mentally ill, the misinformed, the credulous... kinda like a secular version of a particularly scammy preacher. Sure, in small doses it can be entertaining in the same fashion as the Weekly World News was entertaining, but too many people have been snookered by this sort of crap.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Wuxia Wonderland

Last Tuesday, at bar trivia, I received some fantastic news from one of my teammates- the Yonkers location of the Alamo Drafthouse will be showing one of my all-time favorite films, the 1978 Shaw Brothers classic Five Deadly Venoms. As soon as the trivia competition was over, my friend bought a bunch of tickets so we could see this film on the big screen. Five Deadly Venoms is a classic martial arts film, beginning with the dying master of the Venom Clan tasking his last student, Yang Tieh, with protecting the clan's reputation by investigating five former pupils, ascertaining whether they are using their skills for good or ill. The beginning monologue, accompanying a montage of the five 'venoms' displaying their animal-inspired fighting styles, is a classic moment in the kung fu genre:





Trained in the rudiments of the five venom styles, Yang Tieh is informed that he is no match for any of the 'venoms', so his best course of action is to determine which, if any, of the former pupils has remained righteous, and to team up with them to defeat the malfeasors. Dissembling as a smudge-faced bumpkin, he starts his investigation, which is complicated by the fact that the five deadly venoms wear animal-themed masks while they are practicing their fighting arts.

The great appeal of Five Deadly Venoms is its combination of mystery movie with martial arts action. Yang Tieh has to use his wits to suss out the situation, and risk his safety by placing his trust in one or more of his predecessors. The martial arts in the film are fantastic, with each fighter practicing a highly distinctive, outlandish style of combat, each with its strengths and vulnerabilities (the discovery of the weaknesses of the fighters is a major plot point of the film). The movie has its emotional moments, with the death of one of the 'good guys' being especially tragic and most memorable. It even has a mild political subtext, with corrupt magistrates being just as much of a scourge on society as rogue martial artists.

As often as I've seen the film, I've never seen it on the big screen before, so I am excited for the opportunity to watch it with good friends in a well-appointed theater with a good beer selection.

EDIT: It's funny how the mind works- I remembered seeing the film on the big screen before while the manager of the theater was mentioning other Shaw Brothers films- he mentioned the film Dirty Ho and I immediately recalled going to Lincoln Center in Manhattan to see this remastered version of Five Deadly Venoms. I've seen the film enough to not even recall having seen the clean print projected on a full-sized silver screen.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Secret Science Club Post Lecture Recap: Oxy Addiction, or Love is the Drug

Last night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House, in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, for this month's Secret Science Club lecture featuring neurologist Dr Bianca Jones Marlin of Columbia University’s Zuckerman Institute. Dr Jones Marlin was lecturing on the hormone oxytocin and its effects on child-rearing.

Dr Jones Marlin began the lecture by 'setting the mood', playing a bit of Marvin Gaye, and stating that oxytocin changes a subject's internal state, dictating the subject's behavior. Oxytocin sets the mood, effecting how parents and babies interact, how parenthood biologically occurs. Babies have a limited repertoire of responses to stimuli- their laughter or crying elicits responses from adults. To illustrate this, she showed a video of two babies laughing, then showed a video of a crying baby, commenting 'somebody let that baby cry while videotaping it', then admitted that it was her daughter (who was in the audience with the good doctor's husband).

Dr Jones Marlin studies the effects of oxytocin on mice in her laboratory. Baby mice make ultrasonic vocalizations when they are cold, or uncomfortable. These cries alert adult mice- a mother mouse will retrieve a pup and place it in the nest while virgin female mice tend to ignore or even cannibalize crying pups. Motherhood changes the response of a mouse to a pup's vocalizations, and oxytocin is the trigger.

Oxytocin is produced in the paraventricular nucleus of the brain's hypothalamus and is released by the posterior lobe of the pituitary gland. Oxytocin is released during sex (especially during orgasms), birth (uterine contractions cause the release), breast feeding, touch, and eye contact. Among prairie voles, oxytocin plays a role in monogamy- remove oxytocin and the voles sleep around. Oxytocin has also been implicated in human ethnocentrism, leading to newspaper headlines such as 'The Dark Side of Oxytocin' and 'Oxytocin/Schmoxytocin'.

Dr Jones Marlin wanted to study the hard science of oxytocin... Where does it act? When does it act? How does it change behavior? She specifically wanted to study the auditory factors, the sound cues which trigger pup retrieval in mothers and cannibalism in virgin mice. There are receptors in the auditory cortex of a mouse's brain which react to oxytocin. The left-side hearing area (corresponding to Broca's area and Wernicke's area) has double the amount of oxytocin receptors as the right-side does. This finding was an early discovery of lateralization in a non-human brain. Hormones such as oxytocin can play excitatory or inhibitory functions in cells. Dr Jones Marlin made a funny school bus analogy- excitatory hormones are the mischievous kids on the bus, riling things up, while inhibatory hormones are the quiet kids on the bus. Oxytocin is found in inhibitory neurons which regulate maternal roles. Introducing Muscimol to the left auditory cortex prevents pup retrieval by experienced mice- it makes mice into bad moms by interfering with distress messages.

After locating the region of the brain effected by oxytocin, Dr Jones Marlin wanted to find the time scale on which it operated. Oxytocin can be injected into mice, but the production of endogenous oxytocin can be induced through optogenetics- specifically, blue light can activate the release of oxytocin in transgenic mice with added DNA from marine algae. In Dr Jones Marlin's research, she stimulated oxytocin release every three hours for three days straight- she quipped that it was "a long PhD". Inducing oxytocin production in virgin mice can make them into successful 'nannies'- they will retrieve pups which make distress cries and return them to their nest.

The 'language' of the brain is electrical- the neurons speak through spikes of electrical activity. To measure this, a craniotomy is performed on a subject and a glass 'straw' is inserted- a metal probe in the straw can 'listen in' on the spiking electrical output of the neurons. Among subject mice, the neurons of the auditory cortex would spike when a recording of a pup's cries could be heard. Among mother mice, the neurons would fire at the same time when a cry was played, forming a coherent code. A naive virgin mouse has neurons that fire, but there is no encoding of a message. An experienced virgin mouse, exposed to oxytocin, learns the coherent code. Bad nannies can be made into good nannies. Neurons in the hearing area of the brains of transgenic mice can be exposed to blue light, which floods the brain with oxytocin- paired with a pup's cry, a coherent response emerges, and a subject mouse goes from a 'virgin' response to a 'mom' response. The brain knows to release oxytocin during birth- release is triggered by the uterine contractions.

Dr Jones Marlin then went on to discuss her personal reasons for studying oxytocin... In the United States, four to seven children die each day from abuse or neglect. The brains of neglected children have less white matter than the brains of well-treated children, and individuals who suffered child neglect have a life expectancy twenty years shorter than that of their well-treated peers. Dr Jones Marlin took time to thank her great parents, who cared for foster children. She was motivated by the lack of agency that her foster siblings expressed. She wanted to study how parents can be better, by studying transgenerational epigenetic inheritance.

Dr Jones Marlin's lecture was followed by a Q&A session. The first question regarded the role of oxytocin in relationships- it is released through interaction and strengthens bonds. Another question regarded post-partum depression, specifically if oxytocin could help alleviate it- more research is needed in humans. Some bastard in the audience asked if injections of oxytocin could make male mice into good nannies. The gestation period of a mouse is twenty-one days. Males will often eat pups, but twenty-one days after copulation, they will cease this behavior, but pup retrieval is exclusive to female mice. After five days of oxytocin injection with no change in behavior, the injections were stopped. At one point in her talk, Dr Jones Marlin's daughter cried out, and the good doctor joked about leaving the stage to retrieve her, but her husband soon had matters well taken care of.

Another question regarded the interaction between oxytocin and cortisol- oytocin tends to calm individuals, while cortisol is a stress hormone, but their interaction is largely unknown. Yet another question regarded the stimulation of oxytocin production, and Dr Jones Marlin stated that the best answer is "SEX!" She joked that using blue light was impractical, then wondered aloud about why red lights are used to denote the vice district (I would suspect that it's because red light tends to interfere less with night vision). Dr Jones Marlin dismissed the idea of oxytocin supplements: "I would not buy them off of Amazon." She noted that studies on autistic persons suggested that oxytocin improves eye contact, then reiterated that the best way to promote oxytocin production was to make eye contact, to look at people, to kiss, to touch, to have sex. Now, that's not only good advice, but it's good SCIENCE!

Dr Jones Marlin ended the Q&A session by noting that, as a basic biological scientist, she would be at a disadvantage listing the prosocial effects of oxytocin. She studies the biological underpinnings of behavior. She studies the mechanisms so that others can use her research to study the effects of oxytocin in autistic persons or the possible role of oxytocin in countering child abuse.

Here's a 2014 video of Dr Jones Marlin talking about her inspiration for becoming a neuroscientist, and explaining her methodology for measuring neuron activity:





Here's a cute recent video of the good doctor on a local news broadcast taking questions from laypersons on the street:





As you can tell, she is a good sport as well as being a great neuroscientist. Kudos to Dr Jones Marlin for a fantastic lecture. Thanks to Dorian and Margaret and the staff of the beautiful Bell House for presenting another great Secret Science Club event, and high fives to Dr Jones Marlin's nice husband and gorgeous baby girl for their good fortune in having such a wonderful lady in their lives.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

The Title Had Better Be Pounded in the Butt by the Chuck Tingle RPG

I'm going to be heading down to Brooklyn, King of Counties and County of Kings for this month's Secret Science Club lecture, which promises to be about oxytocin, the 'love drug'. On the topic of love, there's some exciting news regarding Chuck Tingle, whose life mission is to prove that love is real. I haven't covered Chuck much, but he did a great job of exposing right-wing foolishness concerning Hugo awards.

The big news is that Chuck is working on a Tingleverse Role-Playing Game, so mere mortals can emulate Tingleian protagonists without danger of injury. I'm hoping that a vampire night bus is a character option supported by the rules.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

The Promise of Spring

So far, this spring has been pretty lackluster- it's been cold, with a lot of precipitation, including some wet snow mixed with rain last night. There are some signs of better weather to come, with the crocuses and daffodils coming in, in defiance of the cold:




In even more heartwarming news, I heard the first of the spring peepers of the season early Tuesday morning. There may still be piles of snow in the parking lots, but it's spring in the ponds. I needed this break after the heavy posts of the last couple of days.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Brexit and the 20th Anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement

Today marks the twentieth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, which is regarded as the end to The Troubles, the largely, though by no means entirely, sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. The issue of the Republic of Ireland/Northern Ireland divide seemed to become all-but-moot when Poblacht na hÉireann and the United Kingdom joined the European Union and the border between the two nations basically melted away.

With the 'success' of the Brexit vote, the issue of border control has risen like a zombie (RIP Dolores) to trouble policymakers and inhabitants of both sides of the border. Discussions concerning the border have involved invoking the specter of paramilitary activity as well as the issue of tariffs and trade. At any rate, 55% of the residents of Northern Ireland voted against the Brexit, and thousands of northerners who commute to the Republic of Ireland would be adversely affected if passport controls were instituted. Long-term, the pro-Republic Sinn Fein party considers the border issue to be a possible factor in Irish reunification, which would be triggered if a majority of voters on both sides of the border vote in favor of it. It's a long shot, but it could be that the old song becomes a prophecy:





The twenty years of peace bodes well for a peaceful solution to the border issue, even though workers could be boned if the border is 'hardened'. I doubt that the bad old days described by my favorite Welsh songsters, who condemned both sides of the violent conflict, will come back to plague the border:





Of course, there are always the dead-enders who might cause problems, but they thankfully seem to be kicking the bucket due to old age.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Dolt-n-Bolton

I'm not a timorous fellow, but I am concerned that the ascent of John Bolton to the position of national security advisor bodes ill for the nation. With Trump 'vowing' a response to a suspected chemical attack in Syria, and the FBI's seizure of Michael Cohen's records, I really think that the Trump maladministration may escalate the American role in the Syrian conflict. Even worse, with a psycho like Bolton having the president's ear, I am concerned that any escalation may blow up into an an attack on Iran. The neocons have always had a hardon for Iran, and even though some of them joined the 'never Trump' contingent, I think that an attack on Iran would bring all of them to Trump's yard.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Gilded Shithole

Another post about a local news story- there was a fatal fire in an apartment at Trump Tower yesterday, a four-alarmer which claimed the life of a 67 year old art dealer and resulted in injuries to six firefighters. This has been the second fire this year in the building, which was completed before the installation of sprinkler systems was mandatory. When legislation which would have required the retrofitting of buildings with sprinkler systems was proposed, Trump lobbied against it.

Despite his gaudy, gilded image, 'The Donald' is still a slumlord at heart. He employed undocumented immigrants to build Trump Tower, stiffed them on their paychecks, and failed to provide them with safety equipment. The gold-leaf in the building lobby probably hides sub-standard wiring and other code violations. I'm one of those crazy individuals who believes that regulations are important, that tenants should expect safe conditions in their dwellings. At the very least, fire suppression systems should be in place in big buildings to protect firefighting personnel. I imagine that the high-rollers who inhabit Trump's high rise death trap believed that their apartments were safe, but placing one's trust in Donald Trump is perilous.

Friday, April 6, 2018

You Have Brought Shame on Your Dojo

One of the big local stories of the week has been the arrest of UFC fighter Conor McGregor on multiple charges for attacking a bus filled with other fighters with a hand truck. Ordinarily, in circumstances like this I would crack a joke like 'the hand truck, an elegant weapon for a more civilized age', but this incident sticks in my craw. Two fighters are unable to compete due to injuries sustained in the incident.

I'm a fighter, and I coach children in judo classes. As odd as it seems, there has to be a moral component to potentially dangerous sports- we stress fair play and concern for each others' welfare. Most importantly, keep the brawling in the ring, on the mat, in the dojo. McGregor cheap-shotted a bunch of unsuspecting persons with a potentially deadly improvised weapon, and two people were injured, and it affected their livelihoods. It's one thing to knock somebody's ass sideways in a match (injuries happen, they are even to be expected), but this was stupid and craven.

Years ago, when mixed martial arts were just gaining in popularity,somebody asked sensei (the large, formidable gentleman in the right background of this picture) what he thought of MMA, and I will never forget his response: "It lacks warmth." In our dojo, there is a welcoming atmosphere, an emphasis on learning together, on improving together. Anyone who would think to assault another player would be sent packing. Every once in a while, a parent will ask me about the safety of our sport, and the standard answer I have come to make is: "Look at how many of us have gray hair, or no hair, and are still playing the sport. This isn't true of most contact sports." Not having assholes in the dojo is a big factor in our longevity as players. I know McGregor is involved in a different, but related sport. He's not the norm- most fighters are good people, you can pick them out on the subway, and we like to talk, sometimes even having friends in common (usually Gentle Jimmy G). Stupid, gratuitously violent bullshit affects all of us negatively, and McGregor really, really messed up- hopefully, the governing body of the UFC will sanction him, but I suspect that the monied interests won't do so because notoriety tends to bring in cash.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Dada Turned Deadly

While I was driving home from my vacation in Virginia, I was listening to the YouTube campus shooting coverage in realtime. The initial shocker was the reveal that the perpetrator was a woman. My initial suspicion was that a right-winger, incensed by YouTube's decision to remove gun-related videos, had decided to shoot up the joint. As details emerged, I was starting to believe that the shooting was a domestic violence incident- a post breakup rampage. The truth of the matter was so much weirder- the shooter seems to have been incensed that YouTube policies had cost her ad revenue. Her parents had alerted the authorities that she had gone missing, and the police had located her, but she was released, in possession of the gun.

The real bizarre thing is that Nasim Sabz' videos are now garnering more views than they ever did while she was alive, and boy howdy are they outré. They have a sort of Dada-esque quality to them, being farragoes of chiptunes and outlandish imagery:





It is a pity that she decided to take up arms against a sea of troubles, injuring three, terrorizing hundreds, and killing herself. She could have pursued a career in stoner comedy if only she hadn't been able to obtain a firearm.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

No Simulacrum He, No Sanitizing Him

On this half-century anniversary of Dr Martin Luther King's assassination, I figured that I would defer to Dr Cornel West, who was featured in a remarkable segment on the Brian Lehrer Show. I like Cornel West, he's an important voice in the public discourse, and even as a secular person I occasionally enjoy the preacher's cadence he employs.

Dr West has the audacity to address Dr King's latter-day despair, verging on nihilism at times. It's a refreshing antidote to the overly sanitized version of King's life, calling attention to the pushback King received from the American political mainstream, even from the liberal establishment of the time. King was attacked for his opposition to the Vietnam War, he was criticized for his skepticism regarding a social system which was hopelessly corrupt. Dr West cites Harry Belafonte quoting King's despair: "Am I integrating into a burning house?"

Dr King decried societal failures concerning war, poverty, materialism, and racism- Dr West notes that we are still not doing well in these areas. King was a radical, an anti-imperialist. West states, "Martin King was the real thing- he was not a semblance, he was not a simulacra of the real thing." He also calls out those who claim to honor King, but don't challenge empire, patriarchy, homophobia, transphobia. West is describing intersectionality, an interlocking approach to resistance to power, combining feminism, economic justice, LGBTQ rights. King was killed when he was in Memphis supporting a labor action. A year before his death, he had come out against the War in Vietnam, exacerbating rumors that he was a Communist.

King was perceived as a dangerous radical when he was murdered at the age of thirty-nine. He was certainly not hailed as the hero that he is largely portrayed as now, and he most certainly wasn't the 'safe', sanitized figure that the media wants to replace him with, burying the moral titan whose challenges to the racist, patriarchal, capitalist, imperialist status quo are as cogent now as ever.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Hitting the Road

My current vacation is drawing to an end, and I will be hitting the road shortly. It was a good time, I spent Easter with a good chunk of family and spoke to other family members on the phone. Everybody is doing well, everybody is busy in a good way. It feels a bit strange to have been away from the job for over a week, which means that I really haven't taken a standard vacation in a long while. I have had a run of short vacations, a couple of days to make a long weekend here and there, but it was good to get out of Dodge for a while. It'll be good to be back in the Homeland soon, but I'm the only one of my siblings who is still there.

At any rate, I plan on taking it easy on the ride home, leaving well after the morning rush hour. As much as I kvetch about driving, a long highway trip is about the least annoying driving a person can do.

Monday, April 2, 2018

No Need for a Nutcracker

I don't often eat lobster- it's expensive, so I only buy it on rare occasions when it is on sale. I also never order it in restaurants because I would make a scene. On those rare occasions when I eat the things, I put on a ratty T-shirt and shorts, keep a bucket of soapy water nearby, and eat outside. I pretty much disarticulate the whole bug with my bare hands, sea otter style, and extract every available molecule of meat from the exoskeleton, even the small muscles in the joint connecting the walking legs to the body. and the flat bits of meat inside the tail fins. Naturally, I eat the green globule behind the head of the lobster.

My mom had a frozen lobster tail that we decided to split for a real 'mixed bag' dinner. I broiled it with butter and lemon pepper. It wasn't as messy as a whole lobster, but I ended up disarticulating the shell and splitting the meat with mom. At the end, there was just a pile of ineffectual armor plates:




I realized that I eat lobster just like the mermaid in Splash did:





When you're built like a skull-cracker, you don't need a nutcracker.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Happy Easter, No Foolin'

Today was a great day, mom and I stayed over at my sister's place in the near DC suburbs (within Metro range) so we could maximize time with my sister, her husband, and their sons. The interplay between the boys is hilarious- a mixture of mild smack talk and genuine affection. My brother-in-law, ever the scientist, decided to conduct an experiment- he hid Easter eggs for the young 'uns, then timed each of them, replacing the eggs in the same spot. Then, he had the kids hide the eggs for the adults, timing each of us. He graphed the results of the egg hunts, showing an early spike in egg discoveries, then a leveling off as the more difficult hiding spots were sought, with a second small spike as hiding spots are ruled out. This is how science nerds have fun.

After dinner, mom and I took Boy B, my oldest nephew, to Dulles Airport for his flight back to school. He is in his last semester of senior year, and will be graduating in May. He's a mechanical engineering major, so he has a couple of projects to finish before graduation. Mom and I figured we'd save my sister a trip to the airport, because mom lives in a further DC suburb not too far from Dulles. Besides, it gave us more time to talk with the lad, and the topic of a summer trip to New York came up. If he comes to NYC with his girlfriend, I'll have an opportunity to buy event tickets for them ahead of time. It's always good to have a connection on the inside when you visit a place.

Easter was a fun time- there was some serious nerding out, which I consider fun.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Il Lavoro Della Cucina

Today was largely spent in the kitchen. Mom and I were tasked with the duty of making manicotti and stuffed pasta shells for Easter dinner, my nephews being a big fan of pasta. It was out with the big pot, and on with the oven. Mom and I spent a few hours shooting the breeze while we stuffed pieces of pasta, sharing old family anecdotes and current family scuttlebutt.

At the risk of souding immodest, the manicotti were picture perfect:




We ran out of the ricotta/mozzarella filling, so we had to improvise a sausage and cheese mixture to fill out the rest of the stuffed shells:




We'll be hauling this bounty to my sister's house this afternoon, and spending the night over there so we can continue in the morning with Easter brunch.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Baby Brother's Birthday 2018

Today is the natal day of my baby brother, Gomez. Gomez is currently on the road with his daughter, a hockey prodigy who is competing in a national tournament this weekend. She is following in the footsteps, by which I mean blade tracks, of her dad. Gomez began his ice hockey career around the age of ten, if my memory serves me correctly. Being a stalwart lad, he decided to become a goaltender. Unlike most goalies, he worked on his serious skating skills, rather than just acting as an obstacle in the net. Goalies are like drummers- they are always in demand, and they always get 'gigs'.

My favorite Gomez hockey story took place when he was in high school, perhaps fourteen or fifteen years old. He was at hockey practice at the venerable Murray's Skating Center, in the City of Y______. At the end of practice, he was approached by an adult, who was going to be playing in a friendly cops vs firefighters pickup game in the next time slot. The adult, thinking that the brawny Gomez was a college kid, told him, "We could really use a goalie, and you were impressive in the net." Yup, goalies are like drummers. My brother told the guy, "Uh, I'd like to, but I've got to ask my mom." The adult, cop or firefighter, I don't know, was surprised to say the least, "Ask your mom? You gotta be shitting me." Gomez told him, "I'm still in high school." Mom, knowing the value of ice time, allowed Gomez to play with the grownups, and he comported himself well.

He kept on playing hockey throughout college and whenever possible during his military career (a stint at Fort Drum helped in this regard). Now that he is retired, he is playing in an adult league, coaching his daughter's team, and refereeing on both the adult and youth levels. He recently was appointed chairman of the hockey program. My niece has taken to the sport, even playing goalie like her dad. Even though she's still in middle school, she's certified to referee the peewee games, which is a good, paying gig for a kid her age. Like her dad, she's also a STEM whiz, so she wants to pursue an engineering career.

Anyway, Gomez and my niece are on the road, kicking ice and taking names. I can't think of a more appropriate way for him to spend his birthday.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Lazy Vacation Day

A couple of years back, mom decided to sell the house she had bought twenty years ago, it being too big, with too big a yard, for her to maintain. She moved into a cute townhouse in a nice development, and has a postage-stamp sized lawn in the back. Unlike previous visits of mine, there's no grunt work for me to do. No tree stumps to dig out with a mattock, no bags of mulch to put down. It's a little weird not to have to break a sweat doing some task. Tomorrow, the only job I have is to start the lawnmower and make sure it is in good working order. Then it's off to my sister's house to hang out with the nephews and help out in the kitchen- basically a day of hanging out, three generations of the family goofing off.

We're also going to be celebrating the birthday of my nephew, Boy A, a day late. I spoke with him on the phone earlier today, interrupting him while he was watching the Boston Red Sox season opener- my sister is a diehard Yankees fan, so I think he roots for the Bosox just to needle her. His grandfather, a Framingham boy, would be proud of him. I bet the boy would drink Moxie if it were available in the DC metro area. He's planning to go to college somewhere in New England, so he might just cultivate a taste for the stuff.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Old Dominion

Today was a slog- I drove from my beloved City of Y______ to my mom’s place in Northern Virginia for Easter. My sister and her family live nearby, and my eldest nephew is on his last Spring Break before he graduates from college and gets commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Air Force, following in the footsteps of both of his parents.

The drive down wasn’t too bad, once I made it past the horrible traffic on the George Washington Bridge. I had planned to hit the road around 5AM in order to beat the traffic, but whiskey shots happened last night. Put more precisely, something called ‘picklebacks’ happened- shots of whiskey chased with shots of pickle brine (a crazy 22 year old introduced us old folks to them). The pickle juice is supposed to cut the whiskey burn... and it did, though I like the burn, and whiskey tastes better than pickle brine.

I ended up sleeping until ten and hitting the road by eleven. I think the pickle brine was the deciding factor in my tardy start.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

I just broke up a relationship that I’ve been in for fifteen years. Yeah, I finally droppedAT&T as a cellular provider. The catalyst for the change was the battery in my iPhone4, putchased in 2013, giving up the ghost. For a couple of months, it was a glorified wall phone cum diminutive desktop computer. I’d unplug it and it would expire by the time I hit the sidewalk in front of the house.

As far as changing carriers, well, AT&T lobbied against net neutrality, so leaving was easy once I got over my inertia. Sadly, all of the telecoms suck equally. Verizon, my new carrier, also lobbied against net neutrality. The deciding factor in my decision was receiving a19% comment any discount on the data bill, a not insignificant sum. I replaced the phone with a diminutive iPhoneSE, which fits in my palm and easily slips into a pocket. I don’t need a big screened monstrosity, nor do they need cutting edge technology.

The transaction took over an hour. To determine my identity, the Fraud Unit asked me a bunch of questions, including one I couldn’t answer, about a supposed old telephone number. Afterwards, I realized that ot was a phone line that I used for dialup internet service back in the 20th century. Nice move, fraud unit!

To prove my bona fides, the customer service rep had to send a copy of my driver’s license and car registration to the fraud unit. It took him about six or seven scanning attempts for him to get a facsimile of my ID photo that was satisfactory for the fraud unit. Christ, I don’t think the Secret Service vets applicants so thoroughly.

Well, at any rate, I have a new phone, almost indistinguishable from the old phone. I’m still in thrall to big telecom, but I changed behemoths. I also recognize that this phone, like the old one, was made by wave slaves cooped up all n factory dorms, but I will protest that I kept the old phone for over four years, until it ceased to function, and I plan on keeping this one for the foreseeable future. It’s hard to be virtuous in this debased age, it I’m trying to mitigate the harm I do.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Sixty Minutes With Stormy

Tonight is the night that Stormy Daniels, the porn star previously best know for seeking to challenge David Vitter for his senate seat, is appearing on 60 Minutes to talk about her alleged affair with Cheeto Benito. In not looking forward to watching her describe Messolini's weenie, but I will probably read about the sticky details tomorrow on the t00bz. At any rate, I have to note that things are weird when a news magazine show has a title more apropos for a porn flick- Sixty Minutes with Stormy sounds like a best-seller at the Adult Video Store.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Busy, Bizzy, Bizz-AY

Today was one of those days- the sort of at on which 24 hours would be insufficient. I left the house this afternoon to catch a bit of the Yonkers St Patrick's Day parade before catching the Bx34 bus to the Woodlawn terminus of the 4 Train. I road a s-l-o-w 4 train from Woodlawn to 59 St/Central Park South, the end of the March for Life. I was able to see a few cohorts of students as I walked to the storied New York Athletic Club, the venue of the NY Open Judo tournament. The tournament was packed- besides comphopped etitors from the US, Canada, Poland, Israel, and France, there were judoka from all over the metro area. I was happy to see a couple of students, and made sure to tell the kids who came to watch the show to greet two time Olympic gold medalist, defender of children, all all-around warrior queen Kayla Harrison. Kayla is the most accomplished judo player in the States, and is a stellar role model.

During the Open, I had a couple of beers, so I hopped on the 4 train sans pain, and transferred to the Bx34 bus, which runs along Katonah Ave, the heart of Woodlawn Heights. I hopped off the bus near the Rambling House, where a friend of mine was spinning records. He took a bow and let local heroes Shillelagh Law play the headline- they are a fun band, mixing Irish trad and rock and/or roll, anchored by a couple of FDNY members who are all-Ireland fiddle and accordion prodigies. I had a number of beers before deciding to go home and sober up. I had a funny over-the-fence conversation with my neighbor about the quality of the craic today.

It's been a day, a busy day, a fun day. There was one melancholy note- my friends Francesco and Tomasso lost their mom to Parkinson's disease. I conveyed my condolences to the fratelli and their father, who is a great judo player in his regard. It was a busy day, but I paid my respects to the neighborhood, the students against gun violence, my friends' mother, and the judo community. It involved a lot of running around, but that's what you do when you have obligations.

Friday, March 23, 2018

No Horror at Red Hook

Last night, I headed down to the Grindhause in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, to hang out with some Wonketteers, including the Editrix and her lovely family. It was a good time with some funny, smart people.

After the soirée, I received a ride back to the Borough Hall subway station from Brooklyn Bred Brian, a Wonkette lurker who is an all-around great guy. He saved me a half hour wait for the B61 bus. We immediately hit it off while discussing pub crawling. When he mentioned the venerable Rocky Sullivan's, I immediately thought, "Now, this is the kind of drinking buddy everybody needs." We also talked about the changes in Brooklyn over the last twenty years. He's a Rafa Avis, a Brooklynite who was born and raised in the borough. I made sure to mention the Secret Science Club to him, first round on me. Some of the other attendees work in STEM fields, and I look forward to seeing them at the beautiful Bell House.

Once I got to Borough Hall, the trek became complicated. The Borough Hall station is, as Dotard would put it, a shithole. The entire station was dripping dubious liquid from the snowmelt above. The 4 Train was running to 138th in the Bronx, with shuttle bus service to 149th St, where service to Woodlawn resumed. There was no guidance at 138th St, a crowd was hanging out near a sign reading 'Discharge Only', with pickup taking place around the corner. All told, the commute was a slog. Still, the event more than made up for the ride home.

Post title taken from this charming tale.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

The Disinformation Campaign Begins

One of the biggest stories on the national news this week has been a spate of bombings in the Austin, TX metro area which killed two individuals and injured three. The initial two victims were two African-American men, Stephen House and Draylen Mason, who attended the same church- this suggested that the bomber was a white supremacist targeting prominent Austin African-Americans.

The bomber, who set himself up the bomb when the police were closing in on him, left behind a blog in which he detailed his pretty run-of-the-mill conservative views. He was homeschooled and a member of a survivalist group called Righteous Invasion of Truth (RIOT) which seems to have been pretty heavily into LARPing.

This terrorist left behind a video confession which was summed up thusly by an interim police chief: "It is the outcry of a very challenged young man talking about challenges in his life that led him to this point." To me, this is the ultimate expression of toxic male privilege and entitlement: "I hate my life so you must suffer." Maybe he just saw his victims as NPCs rather than as prominent members of a hated community, though the end results were the same.

Already, though, there have been attempts by the MAGA crowd to portray the perp as a liberal:




The 'tell' here, besides the tortured grammar, is the use of 'Democrat Party'. This particular right-wing shibboleth isn't the sort of thing that a background search company would use. To make the incompetence of this campaign is the misspelled hashtag- #AustinBoming. Uncle Vlad isn't getting his ruble worth out of these morons.

Enough ugliness for now, here's a performance of a song composed by Draylen Mason:





There are videos of Mr Mason playing the bass, but the uploader expressed a wish that media companies not use them. It's unspeakably tragic that this brilliant young man made national headlines for his death, when he should have made future headlines for his talent.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Four'easter

That's what they're calling it- the fourth nor'easter to hit the area in three weeks. The news radio station is broadcasting predictions of six to twelve inches of snow, with certain areas hit by up to eighteen inches of the stuff. Wind gusts are supposed to hit gale force. Needless to say, the governor has declared a state of emergency and urged everyone to refrain from non-essential travel.

So far, there are maybe two or three inches of snow on the ground. I left the house around 2PM and headed up to work for an overnight campout. This is the third one so far this month. The local roads in Yonkers were pretty messy, and the two downward slopes in the City of Hills (where nothing is on the level) gave the anti-lock breaks a bit of a workout- luckily, I was able to downshift so losing control of the car was never a danger. Once I hit the Sprain Brook Parkway, I had smooth sailing, being able to stay to main roads. The first thing I did was send a text message to my boss, to let him know that I had reached work in one piece and was equipped to stay overnight.

He immediately called me to ask what the weather conditions were like. He lives north of here, and the snow hadn't hit there yet. He had bought eighteen gallons of gasoline for his generator because he lost power in the last nor'easter. He asked me to send a picture of the snow, because his wife was skeptical about there being snow on the ground. I have to say, it looks absolutely lovely, though I could live without this beauty in late March:




The color doesn't show up well in the photo, but there are yellowish-green leaflets (Nature's first green being gold) on the trees waaay in the background of the shot, center right. It's Spring, and I saw some robins that I'm now worried about, but we might be shoveling snow until April if this storm picks up and becomes the monster that they predicted.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Secret Science Club Post Lecture Recap: Our Partisan Brains

Last night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House, in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, for this month's Secret Science Club lecture featuring Dr Jay Van Bavel of NYU's Social Perception and Evaluation Lab. The topic of this month's lecture was "Our Partisan Brains".

Dr Van Bavel opened the lecture by showing the pictures contrasting Trump's inauguration crowd with Obama's inauguration crowd:




He then showed the text of Trump spokesman Sean Spicer saying that Trump had the largest inauguration crowd of all time, which led to Kellyanne Conway's infamous comment about Spicer relying on alternative facts. He compared these two 'blurbs' to a line from George Orwell's 1984: The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command. The 'alternative facts' kerfuffle landed 1984 on the bestseller lists last year.

A majority of poll respondents indicated that fake news has left them confused about basic facts. There are fact checking organizations such as Politifact. He also noted that scientists are in the fact-checking business. After seeing a report that 15% of Republican voters believed that Trump's inauguration crowd was bigger than Obama's even after being shown pictures, Dr Van Bavel wanted to answer a simple question: WTF? He noted that humans have highly partisan brains, and that our partisan brains shape our beliefs.

Democrats and Republicans are more divided than in the past, which is both a cause of and a consequence of the Trump phenomenon. Dr Van Bavel displayed a graphic from the Pew Research Center displaying this polarization:




There is evidence that liberals and conservatives have different brains. Identical twins are likely to share attitudes even if raised apart- there is a huge genetic component to an individual's attitudes. The actor Colin Firth was involved in the publication of a neuroscience paper concerning the brains of liberals and conservatives- the study indicated that liberals have more gray matter in the anterior cingulate cortex and conservatives had more gray matter in the amygdala. As an editorial note, and because Smut insists on accuracy, this is a controversial study.

Studies of political partisans show that there is a similarity between partisanship and sports fandom, with the parties being analogous to teams. Cheerleaders may say that they believe something to be true even if they don't actually believe it. Strip away the conflicts over resources, and there is a history of strictly Us vs Them conflicts, perfectly satirized in this cartoon by Paul Noth:




In one study, participants were assigned to a group, either Rattlers or Eagles, according to a coin toss. They were asked to state their political affiliation as well. When their brains were scanned, there was similar activity when they were shown 'team' affiliated images and political images. The arbitrary in-group affiliation led to activity much like their political affiliation... the subjects divided themselves into tribes at the flip of a coin.

Dr Van Bavel then displayed screenshots from the Wall Street Journal's Red Feed/Blue Feed site, which displays a side-by-side comparison of Conservative and Liberal Facebook feeds. To some extent, the information we receive is curated by social media algorithms. It's profitable for media corporations to show us what we want to see. On the Twitter platform, there is a sharp Red/Blue divide. The posts which are more likely to go viral include moral and emotional words, with 'shares' going up about twenty percent per moral-emotional word. Dr Van Bavel joked that the best way to get a social media post to go viral is to put the word 'disgusting' in it.

People create echo chambers with little crosstalk- there is a moral-emotional divide, a 'you are with me or against me' attitude prevails, with much communication taking the form of virtue signalling. This divide has been weaponized against Americans by Russian operatives. Classic Russian propaganda emphasized images of Russian strength, the new Russian social media propaganda often plays on Americans' cultural divide. Propaganda involves pushing people's buttons, and knowledge about American psychology allowed these trolls to push our tribal buttons. The firm Cambridge Analytica used social media profiles to push a political agenda. In a study published in Science Mag, a team of researchers at MIT confirmed something that has long been held to be true:


"Falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information and the effects were more pronounced for false political news than for false news about terrorism, natural disasters, science, urban legends or financial information. We found that false news was more novel than true news, which suggests that people were more likely to share novel information."


As the maxim goes, "A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on."


This article was the 9th most discussed article in the history of Science. The issue of the dissemination of falsehood goes beyond crowd size- global warming matters, vaccination matters- commonly believed falsehoods adversely effect crucial policy discussions. The lateral prefrontal cortex plays a role in memory, and memory can be messed up by politics- a falsehood can fit into one's memory if it fits into one's preferred narrative. The problem is that it is hard to have a serious discussion about carbon taxes or carbon credit swaps if the science behind anthropogenic climate change is distorted.

The value placed on the validity of knowledge depends on accuracy goals. In science, finance, and prosecutorial matters, accuracy is important. In politics, belonging goals are important in the formation of communities. Epistemic goals, existential goals, status goals, system goals, and moral goals also play roles in political matters. If other goals are more important than accuracy goals, trouble can result- people can believe falsehoods. People's goals effect their calculations about what to read and what to share.

Dr Van Bavel displayed an example of the 'old', obvious fake news- the classic Weekly World News cover story about Bat Boy. He noted that even the fake news could dabble in political satire. It's often hard to tell fake news from real news now- especially if links are coming from trusted friends. In the recent political scene, both Trump and Clinton have been in the public eye for so long that they have had quotes on both sides of many issues, such as the Iraq war and LGBTQ issues. Liberals tend to value equality and environmental conservation, while conservatives tend to value authority and security- each tended to give more credence to quotes which matched their confirmation bias, while being skeptical of quotes which didn't.

There was a study of fake news sites which utilized items from the satirical Empire News website. There were stories about Hillary Clinton wearing an earpiece during a debate, of Florida Democrats voting to impose Sharia law on women, of Donald Trump imposing a 'one child' policy on minorities. When presenting the fake news stories, there was a 'control' condition in order to determine if subjects would believe any bullshit, such as a story about Leonardo DiCaprio flying an eyebrow stylist 7,500 miles to groom him for the Oscars ceremony. Generally, Democrats believe bad fake news about Republicans and vice versa. Democrats have a better ability to sort out complete bullshit than Republicans- Democrats tend to default to skepticism while Republicans tend to default to credulousness, so there is an asymmetry in bullshit detection.

One in four Americans has shared fake news with others. Dr Van Bavel confessed to sharing three fake news stories, but was called out by scientist friends. Democrats are more reluctant to share fake news than Republicans, an important asymmetry. He illustrated the change in attitudes toward truth with two quotes. The first, attributed to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, is: "Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts." The second, by Stephen Colbert, is: " It used to be, everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. But that's not the case anymore. Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything. It's certainty." This shift is really worrisome in its implications. Facebook is concerned with news sources, and is attempting to collate trust scores for different media outlets. The number one fake news story of the 2016 election season was the story of Pope Francis endorsing Trump, which originated with an openly fake news site, WTOE 5. The fake news outstripped the real news. The big problem with having the news crowdsourced through social media is that it is susceptible to hivemind.

The antidote to fake news is increasing accuracy goals. This involves self-reflection. The concept of naïve realism leads us to believe that people who disagree with ourselves are idiots or jerks. We must engage in self-criticism, we must value accuracy. We must also make people publicly accountable for spreading fake news. We should strive to open minds- if belief emerges from identity goals, then challenging the belief threatens identity. The best way to open a mind is to affirm a person's worth while correcting them. For example, pounding antivaxxers with evidence often ends up entrenching their beliefs.

Dr Van Bavel noted that scientists are working on the fake news problem and urged the audience to help them with fix it.

The lecture was followed by a Q&A session. The first question concerned gender differences in attitudes towards fake news, but the sample sizes were too small. Comparing Twitter feeds of men and women, it turned out than men tend to be more emotional regarding politics than women. Regarding the density of brain neurons, there are certain interesting changes that can take place in the brain- London cabbies were found to have high neuron density in the area of the hippocampus that processes spatial memory. Regarding political identity, the 'Dems Left/'Pubs Right' dichotomy is of relatively recent origin- there used to be liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats, but now the party affiliation is aligned right vs left. Regarding the Nature/Nurture debate, Dr Van Bavel described it as a bad dichotomy. He compared the political system of the US, with its two major parties, with that of his native Canada, with five major parties, nothing that Canadians had a harder time sorting out an Us vs Them narrative. Some bastard in the audience asked about the role of spite in the political arena, noting that one party tends to elect politicians which want to fund retraining for unemployed Kentucky coal workers while the other party tends to elect politicians to make sure that New Jersey commuters are boned by not funding needed infrastructure. Dr Van Bavel characterized this as Negational Affect toward the outgroup, which is characterized by Schadenfreude toward members of that group, joy at their suffering. He described politics as having gotten as bitter as the Yankees/Red Sox rivalry, partisanship so bad that it is damaging. The bastard in the audience then implored him to study the asymmetry of spite. Because the bastard mentioned Trump's refusal to fund a trans-Hudson rail tunnel, a subsequent questioner referred to him as 'the Jersey guy', much to the bastard's consternation. A question about approaches to identity elicited a great line from Dr Van Bavel: Identity is formed on all levels from neurons to nations. Regarding the dichotomy between 'amygdala oriented cons' and 'cortical oriented libs', Dr Van Bavel noted that conservatives attend to threats, while liberals are attuned to curiosity. In threatening environments, sticking together is a good strategy, while curiosity is a good trait in a safe environment (is this why conservatives want more a more dangerous society?). These are different solutions to evolutionary problems- partisan me has to note that one side of the partisan divide tends not to believe in evolution.

Dr Van Bavel gave an entertaining, lively lecture, even if I personally would have preferred him going 'the full driftglass'. At any rate, here is a video of him discussing the partisan brain:





Relax, pour yourself a beverage, and soak in that SCIENCE! Kudos to Dr Van Bavel, Dorian and Margaret, and the staff of the beautiful Bell House for yet another fantastic Secret Science Club lecture.



Monday, March 19, 2018

Drinking on St Joseph's Day

I've been joking for years that the Feast of St Joseph, March 19th, should also be a drinking day, that mid-March should be a multi-day bender, like Carnival in New Orleans. It's traditional to eat zeppole, or sfingi, which are like French crullers filled with custard or cannoli cream, but drinking isn't a big part of the festivities... until now. I went out to get a zeppola this afternoon, but the real event takes place later- I'll be heading down to Brooklyn for this month's Secret Science Club lecture. I'm going to exercise discretion when it comes to imbibing, though, I have to be at work at 5AM tomorrow. I can make it up tomorrow during bar trivia.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Hangovers, Leftovers

Last night was, in the Irish vernacular, good craic. Good friends, good food, and plenty of beer to wash it all down. Then came the whiskey shots- generous shots of Jameson's to be exact. I'm more of a Tullamore Dew man myself, but I'm no a fool who'd say no to Jameson's or Powers or Black Bush or you get the picture. At no point in the night did I feel more than a warm glow, but I sustained that glow for hours.

This morning, I woke up early in order to chug a quart of water, then slowly crawled back up the evolutionary scale. Late morning, I met with friends for breakfast- homemade corned beef hash made from last night's leftovers, capped with slightly runny poached eggs and washed down with plenty of Irish breakfast tea. By 1PM, I was actually in the mood for a bottle of lager.

Tonight, I'll be going out with a bunch of friends to celebrate the birthday of an old high school chum. Every year, he chooses to go to a Brazilian rodizio restaurant, which is weird, because he is one of those people who likes his meat extremely well-done, and the rodizio is an orgy of dripping red meat, rare to medium rare. He always asks the waiters to take a portion of each skewer load back to the kitchen and cook it well-done, and after everybody's eaten, he is starting on his plate of leathery chunks. I don't know why he even bothers going to a place that is a temple to rare meat, but he does to himself this every year. The rest of us enjoy it way more than he does- he spends most of his time minutely inspecting the offerings, then issuing instructions to the befuddled waitstaff. He'd be better off eating at an Applebee's or stealing the immolated offerings off of an altar to Moloch.

At any rate, there will be drinking tonight as well- gotta have at least one capirinha and maybe an Argentine Malbec to balance the carnivory. Tomorrow, the hangover may be back, but there will be no desire to eat any meat of any sort.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Solemn Feast of St Patrick

Oddly enough, I didn't post a big runup to St Patrick's Day. I chalk it up to the fact that this year has been an insane cavalcade of crises and scandals. Well, 'tis the day itself, and I'm going to run out for a beer before heading over to some good friends' house for a fine Irish-American corned beef and cabbage dinner. Time to post a couple of videos, like I typically do to celebrate.

The visit of the openly gay taoiseach Leo Varadkar to the US has been entertaining, with wags on both sides of the Atlantic taking the Mickey concerning Mike Pence's private breakfast with Mr Varadkar. I'd hazard to guess that Pence had bangers on his mind, if not the menu, IYKWIMAITTYD. At any rate, same-sex marriage has been legal for almost two years, so bigotry really isn't an appealing message to the Irish people, least of all the openly-gay, half-Indian Leo Varadkar.

As a show of scorn for the current administration, I figure I'll post two tunes by the late, great Phil Chevron. The first is Under Clery's Clock, a song about a closeted gay man worrying about whether or not his lover will meet him under the clock at the now-defunct Dublin department store Clerys:





The second song is Phil's incredible emigration song Thousands Are Sailing:





The United States took in refugees from Ireland throughout Irish history- people fleeing famine, war, poverty, and oppression made their way to these shores and, to put it in the current idiom, Made America Great... just like all immigrant groups did. Sláinte to everybody reading this, bad luck to the orange ogre, and celebrate your heritage. The Irish are a diaspora people, and have intermarried and intermingled with people from all over the world. We have an especial affinity for Mexicans, another strike against the assholes running this country.

Friday, March 16, 2018

New York State Lost a Champion

This week has been a bad one, as far as the obituaries are concerned. NY 25th district representative Louise Slaughter died at the age of 88 after a fall at her home last week. Representative Slaughter, who represented Rochester, was a breath of fresh air from the northwestern reaches of New York state, a region which all too often causes embarrassment to us liberal downstaters. Louise Slaughter was different, a champion of women's rights, of workers' rights, of access to healthcare. She was a microbiologist as well as a congressional representative, and she advocated for science funding. Most importantly, she advocated for her constituents in the economically disadvantaged district.

Slaughter was an ethical representative and a principled one. Because of her stance on healthcare reform, her office was vandalized and her family was threatened. You can tell the character of an individual by the type of enemies they have, which gives an indication of what a great representative Louise Slaughter was. New York has lost a champion, at a time when we need one the most.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Beware the Ides of March, Orange Julius

Wow, it's funny that March 15th would be the day on which it was revealed that Robert Mueller subpoenaed the Trump Organization concerning its dealings with Russia. This isn't some fake attack on Trump, this is the moment when, in American vernacular English, shit gets real, really real. I imagine the shredders will be working overtime at Trump tower.

The real question is who will inspire the 'Et tu, Brute?' reaction when they spill their guts to the Feds. For a guy who demands loyalty from underlings, Trump certainly doesn't demonstrate this virtue- just ask his wives, the contractors who had the misfortune of working on his projects, his creditors, his investors, his administration's employees. The very idea of some minion volunteering to take the fall for Trump out of some sense of loyalty, or even of omertà, is laughable. I could even see Jared Kushner pulling a Brutus on his father-in-law, just like I could see Trump throwing Jared to the wolves.

At any rate, this administration is playing out as a tragedy which is simultaneously a farce, starring a main character who is both emperor and clown.